Leaders Talk: Dr. Vasil I. Kisil - Senior Partner, Vasil Kisil & Partners

27 07 2012

Can we start with an introduction of yourself and an overview of your company? What is your company’s strategic positioning on Ukraine’s legal services market?

Our firm has more than a 20-year history. It started as a student study group at the Department of International Private Law. That was back in 1987. Starting from 1992 we have been working under the name "Vasil Kisil & Partners". In the beginning the concept y was quite simple: to make enough money to keep out heads above water. However, eventually we did get to the point of real long-term planning and strategy development.

Nowadays we are strongly positioned on the market of legal services. It boils down to striving to maintain our leadership as one of nation's top law firms, while providing a wide range of services in the field of economic relations, civil-legal relations with foreign elements, so basically being a full-service firm, excluding to a certain extend criminal cases that require special training.

What are the main trends taking place on Ukraine’s legal services market now? How do you the future of it?

In my opinion one of the key trends that can be observed today in the legal services market of Ukraine is increasing specialization. A number of companies have reached a level of development, when they see that to be an expert in every single area is not just hard, but simply impossible. So the way I see it, further growth of each law firm will be characterized by development through specialization in a certain segment of the legal services market.

I am optimistic about the future of the legal market. Experience proves that even when the entire business sphere is undergoing turbulence it does not affect legal services all that much, even though business and economical growth does drive the demand for legal services. At the same time legal services are required even when the market crashes.

Vasil Kisil & Partners is present on Ukrainian market for 20 years. What was Vasil Kisil & Partner’s office like in the beginning?

Yes, indeed, as a lawyer's association, we have been working on the legal market for 20 years. Our first office was in a single room in the building of the Ukrainian «Znanie» ("Knowledge") society where, today there is a planetarium there. It was one room shared by all, a phone and if I'm not mistaken, two typewriters. But then the company had a different name.

What were your company’s original goals and objectives? Do you feel that these goals have been achieved? What are your further plans and growth ambitions?

Our future objectives and goals are clear and transparent. We are planning quantitative growth, in terms of the number of lawyers and attorneys, as well as expanding our existing legal service segments where we have already established ourselves: litigation, real estate, corporate law, banking law, competition law, intellectual property, etc.

We plan to enhance these practices to meet our clients’ needs. Obviously, we would like to pay close attention to real estate and land market developments, respectively, after adoption of the new legislation on Land. We believe that we should stay versatile, but remain a national law firm. Our focus is on high-quality service and building long-term relations with our clients therefore in the near future we do not plan an expansion into international arena by opening offices and branches in other countries. However we are continuously developing the network of foreign law firms we work with.

It is important for us to raise the profile of our individual practices and newly admitted partners. Traditionally, we have grown not by pouching talent or lateral hires, but rather from within by providing optimal environment for talented youth striving to achieve partner level positions. We have also formed a number of sector-specific groups with targeted expertise. Our diversification mitigates the risks of economic downturns and changing market conditions, it helped us stay on course and even grow during the last crisis and we plan to continue to offer innovative services to our clients, applying new technologies and targeting new market segments.

Will the billable hour still be king in another twenty years? If not, what will replace it?

Yes, today billable hours for actual work performed remain the main form of client – law firm interaction in the market of legal services. The way I see it this is not likely to change much in the nearest future, however there are alternatives. I foresee that we are going to move to multiple ways of receiving payment for legal services, including flat fees, contingency fees, results-based fees, blended rates and fees by stages. However, I believe that main compensation principle for lawyer's work is here to stay.

Clients’ portfolio of VKP boasts a large number of established and strong companies. When focus on the success of a business model you run - do you attribute this success to the 20-years’ experience, team of professionals or something else?

Yes, indeed our client roster contains a fairly large number of large, well established both national and international companies. There are clients who have been with us for over 20 years, and it says a lot about the firm. I think the main key here is our tough, and I'm not afraid to use this word here, stand on professionalism of our lawyers, focus on clients and their business, teamwork and, of course, the experience we've gained over the years. In any case we have always emphasised high level of service and I am confident we always will.

With Ukraine’s step-by-step entering a global marketplace, how do you see the future of local legal firms? Will the trend toward internationalization of law firms increase over the next future?

Of course, with Ukraine entering the world markets existing domestic law firms will evolve. Perhaps some of them will go through a merger or joining other foreign law firms. More than likely the process of merging among national law firms will go on, though, I also foresee the emergence of many new Ukrainian national law firms. But we, as I said, do not plan to merge with any international or Ukrainian law firm. We believe in our strategy of a multi-service national law firm that is able to provide a wide range of legal services for the corporate sector, in collaboration with other foreign and domestic firms.

What is, in your opinion, the best tool to retail clients’ loyalty?

My strong belief is that the most effective way to maintain customer loyalty is to make the client feel, that his problem, his case is being taken seriously and professionally and that we will ensure legal support to his business no matter how difficult the case is. We have made it our life’s' work to anticipate our clients' specific priorities and concerns, to gain in-depth knowledge of clients' business cycle and major drivers while uncovering unforeseen service opportunities. Such approach enables us to provide our clients with the highest level of service satisfying their needs. We are proud that a lot of new business we get comes from referrals provided by our existing clients.

VKP has already built a strong name on Ukraine’s legal services market. What were the main challenges it faced?

Yes, today we really do have a good reputation and we've secured our place in the legal services market of Ukraine. Nevertheless, we still face a number of organizational challenges, as well as those that clearly do not depend on us. We had to fundamentally solve the problems of our office location; we also reconsidered our business format. I recall that we started as a student co-op, and then moved into Limited Liability Partnership and we are now the Association of Lawyers. But these are not so much difficulties as they are growing pains. The toughest and main difficulties we have been dealing with are due to the apparent lack of the normal judicial system in Ukraine. The biggest problem for a lawyer as a professional is when he and everyone else are deeply convinced that there should be one legal decision and in the end what you get is totally not what you expected. It is very hard to take psychologically, particularly for young novice lawyers, and not only them.

What would you identify as your most meaningful accomplishment and as your biggest disappointment?

My biggest accomplishment is the fact that I was part of creating a really strong lawyers association with like-minded people, a strong partnership. There were really no big disappointments in my legal practice. I did have some hopes that never materialized and they did not have so much to do with practicing law, but rather with challenges of democratic development of our country.

How do you see the outlook of EU-Ukraine relations in the aftermath of EURO 2012 flawless hosting?

Regardless of the football championship success, I see enough good prospects for relations between the EU and Ukraine. No doubt, EURO 2012 is a great achievement for Ukraine's image. In relations between Ukraine and EU, from my point of view, there is a mutual and even I would say an equivalent interest coming from both parties. The European Union will make a huge strategic mistake, if it fails to seek a mutually beneficial relationship with such a large country like Ukraine, which has today such significant agricultural potential. The current state of these relations does not seem optimal to me, so I hope that if Ukraine holds problem-free, democratic parliamentary elections and proves, as it was in 2004 that the country can move confidently on a democratic path of development, the prospects for relations between the EU and Ukraine will be good.

If you look ahead five years, how do you see the future of VKP?

My vision is that five years from now our firm will maintain the status of the leading national multi-service firm that actively cooperates with international law firms on cross-border projects aiming to provide the most effective solutions to our clients and their business.

What are your top three priorities for the next 12 months?

Firstly, we have recently significantly expanded our partnership and, therefore, our common top-priority task for the year is to ensure that this new wave completely assimilates itself as partners, and that each of them takes on his/her share of responsibility for the development of the firm. The second task is the continuing development of our leading practices. And the third one would be to improve our IT system.

I think that these goals a fully within our reach provided we keep developing and maintaining the traditions that we have.

Do you agree that best investment is in people? What opportunities does VKP offer for self-development and professional growth of the personnel?

Yes, investing in people is an essential component of our strategy with positive return on investment (ROI). Therefore, we have always paid special attention to this issue attracting students to intern with our firm, as well as investing in the training lawyers. We also strive to enable each lawyer at the firm both financially and time wise to facilitate his/her self-development and professional growth. All colleagues benefit from a corporate training programme which covers main business disciplines from management and leadership to marketing and finance. Moreover, we run English-language courses for lawyers. And that is in additional to all the seminars and professional exchanges with other firms.

Aiming to raise the standards of the legal service market in Ukraine, we are also keen on sharing knowledge and expertise. Our attorneys are actively involved in conducting seminars, webinars, etc., for the legal faculty students – members of the Students’ Leagues of the Ukrainian Bar Association. In addition, Vasil Kisil & Partners provides financial support and scholarships to the best students.

As the firm matures we are starting to look at investment in people on a much broader basis revising our partnership arrangements, in particular introducing non-equity partnership, and making sure that our partnership track is clear to all aspiring young professionals. We are also launching various initiatives to promote work life balance and comprehensive business savvy among both legal and managerial staff.

What has been the most important management lesson you have learned?

Perhaps the most important lesson I've learned over the years was the realization that no administrative decision can be "pushed" or forced upon a team of lawyers. No matter how difficult it is, but you have to convince them and more often than not it will take a lot of time. In our field the usual understanding of management is not appropriate. Here you have to build relationships with people who are on the same page with you. And if you want to propel an idea, you have to persuade them that it is necessary for the common cause.

Who do you most admire as a business leader and why? Do you have role models?

From my point of view, an ideal leader is a person who manages people in such a way no one notices and everything is going smoothly. Do I have any role models? Yes, I do, but I will not mention them to you because you would not believe me.

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KyivPost, 27.07.2012